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Why Do Some Men Engage in Sexual Exhibitionism?

It has to do with anxiety, not just power.

Among the weirdest peccadilloes to emerge in the recent flood of stories of sexual harassment are those situations in which a man invites or coerces a woman to watch him masturbate. Analyzing the psychology of such a man can potentially help us understand the various forms of toxic masculinity currently filling the headlines. As a therapist, I’ve seen a few men who have done this kind of thing and most are driven by intolerable anxiety. The exhibitionistic fantasy—that’s what this is—originates in the man’s need to reassure himself that his penis, his manhood, is not bad, defective, or insignificant. A key part of the imagined scenario is that the woman is fascinated and excited by the display, which affirms the man’s positive sense of masculinity and momentarily relieves his anxiety. This dynamic is usually unconscious.

Of course, the actual woman complaining about this behavior invariably feels controlled, degraded, or ashamed. But her experience of humiliation does not necessarily imply that the exhibitionist’s main goal is to humiliate her. He needs to set up a situation, over and over, in which he can escape anxiety; he’s not primarily out to make women suffer. He uses women as a kind of mirror that, in his mind, reflects back admiration and excitement, not horror or disappointment; the women just feel used.

Normal masculinity in our culture is shot through with anxiety. For reasons that can only be discerned on an analyst’s couch, the normal stresses of growing up male become so extreme to some men, and their particular life circumstances make women so “available,” that sexual exhibitionism becomes a compelling fantasy to enact. When these ingredients are present, you get someone like Louis C.K.

In what ways is masculinity riddled with anxiety? First, for boys, the challenge of separating and individuating from a (usually female) caretaker becomes intertwined with the formation of masculinity. Boys not only have to become separate from their mothers, but to become masculine at the same time. The problem is that masculinity becomes defined as something that is not feminine. Further, our patriarchal culture leads the boy to devalue femininity in order to reinforce this separation process. The resulting personality structure in boys and, later, men, therefore tends to be rigid, competitive, intolerant of dependency and vulnerability, and guilty about rejecting or otherwise hurting women. This type of personality is inherently threatened by intimacy and tormented by fears of fraudulence, of being revealed as insufficiently masculine. Doubts about one's masculinity abound.

Freud called this anxiety castration anxiety; most people know it as male insecurity. It drives a man to overcompensate with narcissistic displays of ego and with competitive aggression, especially with women, in order to reassure himself that he is powerful and important, masculine, rather than weak and vulnerable, that is, feminine. One only has to read the daily news coming out of the Trump White House to see this dynamic in action.

When a man’s anxiety is high enough, the masturbatory sexual fantasy becomes a compulsion and blots out any genuine empathy he might feel. High levels of anxiety cause such men, desperate for anything that will bring them relief, to become especially self-centered. In the search for relief, empathy falls by the wayside. In fact, a man's inability to grasp the effect of his exposure on others is a good measure of his psychological disturbance. It’s impossible to say why anxiety that is commonly seen in most men might lead one of them, Louis C.K., for example, to sexually act out with women when another man deals with it by, say, showing off in competitive sports. That's for his therapist to figure out.

This internal struggle does not excuse C.K. for abusing his power. But from a psychological point of view, power is a crucial part of the picture as men like Louis C.K. have the social, economic, and professional means to put their fantasies into practice—to coerce their sexual objects to behave in ways that fit their fantasies. For the powerful, their wishes become the world’s command.

To understand these men, we need to understand how sexual fantasies function to reduce or mitigate anxiety. In addition to being a private daydream, a fantasy is usually embedded and expressed in a person’s sexual preferences: the particular scenarios, positions, body types, and storylines that turn them on. The job of the fantasy in a person’s psychology is to counteract, usually unconsciously, the inhibiting effects of guilt, shame, worry, helplessness, or inferiority. These feelings threaten to evoke anxiety, which always dampens arousal. When the fantasy lifts the roadblock to pleasure, the result is excitement. All fantasies work this way, regardless of how emotionally healthy the person is.

For example, some people especially enjoy being playfully dominated in bed. The fantasy—and if they can get it, the act—help such people momentarily transcend their guilt and anxiety about hurting or overwhelming a partner. The sexual scenario of being overpowered “works” because the partner’s apparent strength counteracts the inhibiting effects of worry and guilt. Unconsciously speaking, it reduces anxiety.

In a similar way, when a man masturbates in front of a captive audience and can believe she is enjoying the sight, it “works” for him because it offers reassurance that his penis, the symbol of his masculinity, is desirable, not noxious. There is nothing inherently pathological about exhibitionistic scenarios if they are part of consensual erotic play.

With Louis C.K., however, as with other men who are compulsively drawn to this type of situation, the underlying anxiety is likely so intense that their judgment becomes grossly impaired. Swept away are all other considerations, like the woman’s feelings and the possibility of getting caught.

An explanation is not an excuse. Men like Louis C.K. have a responsibility to deal with their neuroses in ways that do not harm other people. That is what therapists are for. But if we want to understand why such a man is aroused by masturbating in front of women, the answer lies not in the power he is exercising but in the anxiety he is attempting to assuage. Such anxiety makes him unable to understand and respect women as people but instead drives him to use women as a means to a psychological and erotic end.

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